McDonald’s sprinting to finish

BUSY GUYS — Rick and Wes Clerc have been working diligently to prepare the new McDonald’s restaurant in Fairmont for its June 29 opening.

FAIRMONT — With only one short week to go before opening, there’s still a lot of work to be done at Fairmont’s new McDonald’s restaurant.

The cooler and freezer are empty. There’s no french fries bobbing in the fryer. No special sauce or sesame seed buns are available, and there’s not a ketchup packet in sight.

But owner Wes Clerc is confident all will be ready when the restaurant re-opens at 5 a.m. June 29, just 12 weeks after closing the old restaurant to prepare the 40-year-old building for demolition.

“You should have seen it a week ago,” Clerc said with a chuckle earlier this week. “It’s been phenomenal the progress we’ve made. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve had 30 subcontractors here every day working together. Tech Builders is the general contractor, and they have just done a phenomenal job coordinating everything.”

McDonald’s opened in Fairmont in October 1978, and Clerc bought the business in July 1980. Since then, he has partnered with his son, Rick, in the operation of McDonald’s restaurants in Blue Earth, St. James and Windom.

When the Fairmont site underwent its first remodeling in 1985, Tech Builders was hired to do the job.

“It was the first McDonald’s that Tech Builders was involved with so that’s were they got their start with us. Today, they have four McDonald’s projects going in different parts of the region,” Clerc said.

At the new Fairmont site, visual separations in the open seating area are created by slatted dividers and clusters of tables. There’s a high-top table in one cluster and a couch for community seating in another cluster. An area that can seat 20 can be closed off to create a meeting room. Almost every table and booth has an outlet for charging electronic devices. Seating capacity is 106, less than the old restaurant, which held 130 in four separate sections, but according to the Clercs, this is the standard size for new McDonald’s restaurants.

Although there is no longer a Playland, the restaurant will have tech screens for young customers, as well as two 65-inch televisions and one 55-inch set.

Clerc describes the new restaurant as the “latest and greatest,” and that’s a pretty accurate description. Enclosing about 5,000 square feet, the building is smaller than the old structure but it is a lot more efficient.

“We’re very pleased with the way it turned out,” Clerc said.

Although the McDonald’s corporation paid for half of the building, Clerc estimates his cost for the remaining share of the building, plus equipment and signage, at well over $2 million.

Weaving through ladders and tools and workmen, Clerc points out the many features of the restaurant like a proud father with a newborn. The first big change people will notice are the four ordering kiosks where customers can enter their own orders, which will have a number corresponding with a plastic table tent they will take to their table.

“It (table tent) has a blue tooth-enabled locating device, and we will have equipment that tells us exactly where the customer is sitting so we can quickly deliver their order,” Clerc said.

Those who shy away from technology can utilize either of the two staffed stations at the ordering counter, which also will have a new look.

“There will be vertical menu boards rather than horizontal, so your basic focus will be what’s on the menu,” Clerc said. “If there’s an order to go, they’ll have a monitor showing which number is being served.”

Fairmont is one of the first McDonald’s in the country to have the newly designed beverage center with 12 spigots of various sodas and drinks.

The drive-thru also has been reconfigured. After ordering at one of the four digital menu boards, customers pay at the first window and pick up at the second window like before. If the order is delayed, the customer will be instructed to pull up to a third window.

“We have a ‘pull-up’ window now so we don’t have to go outside for the majority of the delayed orders. Only if we get an overflow will people have to pull off to the side,” Clerc said. “Now, when we run orders out for the drive-thru, nobody will be coming through the dining room anymore. Everything will be run out through a corridor in the back.”

Like other McDonald’s restaurants, the Fairmont store will feature fresh, not frozen, quarter-pound hamburgers. If you’re imagining patties sizzling on a giant grill, think again. A flat grill smaller than a stove top is capable of cooking three different items at the same time, and it gives new meaning to the term “fast food.” A quarter-pounder requires 65 seconds. While the beef patty is spending its brief time on the grill, the bun, which takes 25 seconds, can be toasted.

“Once we get the system and our coordination down pat, by the time customers get done giving their order, the sandwich should be sitting in the holding area up front. Dinner’s ready in 65 seconds,” Clerc said.

The fryers will produce the same world-famous french fries, but that’s where the similarity ends.

“Before, our shortening came in 35-pound buckets. Now it will be all bulk shortening,” Clerc said. “The shortening will be brought in in bulk, and we’ll have a dispensing nozzle that pumps the oil right into the vats (fryers) as we need it. When we drain it, it just pumps right out of the vats into another one for used shortening so we never have to cart the shortening around anymore”

These fryers also automatically filter the oil throughout the day, draining the oil, running it through a filter, returning the oil into the vat and adding more as needed. If the scheduled filtering occurs at a busy time, the employees can opt to delay the process.

Clerc estimates the filtering feature can add two or three days on the life of the oil, which is changed out every 7 to 10 days.

“For the amount of shortening that we go through, that’s huge,” he said.

The exhaust stacks also have state-of-the-art filtration with a misting system that will keep the grease out of the stacks altogether, eliminating the need to have a vendor come in several times a year to clean them.

Employees will be using a two-sided prep table with three assembly areas: one for counter orders, one for drive-thru and one that can be used for either. A fast-moving conveyor belt will transport the prepared sandwiches for order assembly so employees don’t have to walk each sandwich to the front.

The dry storage area features movable shelving racks which will allow the area to hold a lot of stock in a small area. The cooler is twice as big as the one in the old store and, for efficiency, ties right in with the walk-in freezer. Orders can be brought in on pallets and unloaded quickly to the proper area.

The restaurant’s efficient layout and technology will eliminate a lot of extra steps for the employees, but Clerc knows how much time they spend on their feet. He is furnishing the employee break room with two recliners “so they can put their feet up for a while.”

Clerc shares the success and longevity of his business with his employees.

“It’s a changing and evolving business, but my favorite part has always been the people that I work with day in and day out, being a part of their lives, being in a position where you can make a difference with them,” he said.

His employees must return the sentiment. Prior to closing the old store, Clerc had pared his workforce to 54 people, and he gave them two options. During the interim, they could work at his stores in Blue Earth or St. James, and he would give them an extra $1 per hour to help cover the added transportation costs, a raise they would keep when they came back to work in Fairmont. Or they could file for unemployment and, when they returned to work at the new store, they would receive a $1 per hour raise.

“To my knowledge, we didn’t lose any employees,” he said. “Our starting minimum wage is $11 an hour for individuals over 18. We had open interviews for four days last week at the Holiday Inn, and we were pleased with the response. We ended up hiring 28 new people so we’re up to more than 80 employees.”

Saturday will be a cleaning day with about 10 people splitting into two groups, starting at opposite ends of the store and meeting in the middle. Next week, employee training will consume three days. A VIP reception is set for Thursday night, and the store will open Friday morning.